Super Mario Bros. Wonder review: The joy of pure imagination

Mario has been stomping Goombas, smashing blocks and running from left to right for damn near 40 years. How is Nintendo supposed to keep its classic side scroller feeling fresh after all this time? First, you shift the location to a brand new kingdom. Next, you introduce a bunch of new enemies and power-ups. But what really pushes things over the top is the introduction of a new mechanic that turns everything you think you know about Mario games on its head. What you get is Super Mario Bros. Wonder, a game that dazzles and delights while living up to its name in a variety of ways.

Warning: This review includes some light spoilers, including the number of worlds and descriptions of some hidden levels.

The game starts simply enough with Mario and crew (Luigi, Peach, Toad, Yoshi, Nabbit and, for the first time, Daisy) visiting Prince Florian of the Flower Kingdom. But then Bowser barges in and steals a Wonder Flower, which somehow allows him to merge with Prince Florian’s castle to create a floating mecha fortress of doom. From there, your job is to collect Wonder Seeds (this game’s version of stars and shines) as you help the Florians restore order to their troubled land.

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Right away, this has some subtle but important implications for the rest of the game. The first is that you immediately Wonder Flowers have wild and unpredictable effects. The second is that, because you’re not simply recusing a princess trapped in a castle, the whole Flower Kingdom is working with you to take down Bowser. Sometimes that means you might be rescuing some trapped miners. But other times the Florians are the ones helping Mario (who also has a new voice actor for the first time) by rebuilding a bridge or donating a Wonder Seed at the beginning of a new world. The friendly little flowers scattered across each level will even shout words of encouragement or funny quips as you run by. But the impressive part is that, even in a relatively straightforward platformer like this, there’s a sense of community that makes this world feel more lived in than a lot of epic RPGs.

You’ll find a number of familiar baddies along with some new foes across an incredible range of environments and levels. Wonder features six main worlds each with a distinctive theme. But within those, you’ll still run into reimaingined haunted houses, pirate ships, underwater stages and more. One twist for this game is the addition of badges, which are earned by completing specific levels and some may even be required to find secrets or reveal alternate exits. Some allow you to jump farther or float, while others make extra coins appear. There are even protective badges, like the one that automatically saves you if you fall into lava or poison. It’s a mechanic that feels inspired by recent roguelikes, such as Hades, and it does a great job of adding customizability and replayability.

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to hear Piranha Plants serenade you?

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

However, the biggest twist in the game is the Wonder Flowers themselves. In addition to the one Bowser stole, there’s also one hidden in almost every stage. And if you find it, you better be prepared for the unexpected. Touching them transports you to an alternate dimension where the rules of the Marioverse have been completely rewritten. In one level Super Stars rain down from the sky, while in another you might be transformed into a giant slime. You may also run into Wonder Flowers which converts the game from a side scroller into a top-down 2D maze or suddenly find yourself the target in a shooting gallery.

Almost every flower is different and the possibilities are seemingly endless. In a recent volume of Nintendo’s Ask the Developer, I learned that the team had a wall of sticky notes with over 2,000 ideas, and after playing Wonder, I believe it. Wonder Flowers feel like they add an extra half a level to every stage – they’re a delicious dessert on top of an already bountiful meal.

Toad ain’t scared of some stormy skies.

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Even without the aid of a Wonder Flower, the sheer variety of level types is impressive. Alongside classic stages that are capped off by grabbing a flag, there are also races, badge challenges, puzzle levels and more. There are KO Arenas that let you pick your power-up of choice (Fire Flower, Elephant Suit, Bubble Mushroom or the Drill Hat) before taking down waves of enemies, while Break Time levels provide quick 30-second bursts of excitement. You’ll never be bored, even if you want a change from standard platform jumping.

I also have to say that this might be the best Mario and friends have ever looked, and that includes recent 3D titles like Odyssey. There is just so much detail packed into every level and character. From the determined face Mario makes when he runs around, to the little flames that sprout from your feet every time you jump.

Wonder’s map is also surprinsgly engaging. In the beginning, I wasn’t sure if the ability to freely roam around added all that much. But as I progressed, I found a number of secret nooks and crannies that wouldn’t have fit if the game was locked to a handful of paths. And with Wonder Flowers giving Nintendo the freedom to mix and match mechanics and enemies, there’s just so much to see.

Don’t let Wiggler beat you.

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

Nintendo even managed to address a gripe I had about the pacing of previous 2D Marios. Since they’re meant for both experienced gamers and children who might be new to the franchise, they often locked more challenging levels behind the story’s completion. This meant the beginning of the game could be a slog as you rushed through easier levels to get to the more challenging bits. But with the addition of difficulty ratings and hidden paths that lead to 5-star levels long before you finish the game, there isn’t the same rush to get to the “good stuff.” And I should say that 4 and particularly 5-star levels are balanced just right. Completing one feels like a rewarding challenge, without crossing over into punishing.

I do have some very minor complaints about things like mummy enemies (pulling their wraps feels a bit tedious) and I fear the Elephant Suit might be a bit overpowered in comparison to the Drill Hat. The 5-star levels and rhythm stages are also so good I wish there were more of them, I just can’t get enough. And I’m slightly disappointed the adorable penguins from the movie didn’t make an appearance somewhere in Wonder’s ice levels.

Have you ever seen a Boo this big?

Screenshot by Sam Rutherford/Engadget

But as a whole, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is a marvelous game. Its art and animations have a level of polish that’s practically unmatched by rival titles, and the addition of Wonder Seeds subverts your expectations and keeps this 40-year franchise feeling new and innovative. In a lot of ways, Wonder reminds me of my favorite 2D Mario game ever: Super Mario World. While I wish it didn’t take more than 10 years for Nintendo to create a proper sequel to its last mainline platformer,  if that’s what it takes to get a game like this, I’m happy to sit and wonder what’s next for Mario.

This article originally appeared on Engadget at 

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